Christians often talk about faith as if it’s meaning is so self-evident that any discussion on its nature is superfluous. Yet, we do well to be reminded that error can so easily creep into the crevices of doctrine that are ‘safely’ assumed and taken for granted. Yes, faith is a simple concept and by necessity must remain so, but adopting an indifferent approach toward its nature, may well result in the unwitting ‘believer’ embracing a false hope.
It is important for Christians to have faith; this is foundational to Christianity, but it is also equally important have the right kind of faith. So, let us briefly consider some ‘types’ of faith that have been adopted, rightly or wrongly, that we might have a better appreciation of which kind more adequately represents the kind God approves.
Some Christians consider faith as purely an action of the mind—a rational assent. They adopt this version of faith because they believe that it prevents their trust from being contaminated by human emotions, leading to an intransitive form of faith (i.e. faith that exists without anything to have faith in). Consequently, rational assent assumes a simple subject-object relationship in the believing process, e.g. the believer (the subject) assents to certain truths about Jesus (the object). Because it seems so straightforward, those who embrace faith as rational assent, draw comfort from the fact that their faith is ‘pure and uncontaminated’ by human feelings or actions—objective!
But its so-called objectivity exposes its greatest flaw. The apostle James appropriately reminded the first readers of his epistle that legitimate Christian faith must always have some kind of practical involvement with religious life. Faith that is not validated by faith-generated action is actually fictional; James calls it a demon’s faith, a belief in God without practical submission to him! However, in James’ estimation, a faith commitment to God must be expressed by a lifestyle of practical submission to God’s will—loving charity. Whilst we may concede a cognitive element to believing, it appears from the Bible’s point of view, if loving action doesn’t accompany rational assent, then faith invariably proves to be futile.
But with this emphasis on works as the validation of faith, we can find ourselves in the territory of the opposite error to faith as rational assent—faith as faithfulness.
Some Christians believe that the notion of faithfulness better reflects the kind of faith that is advocated by Holy Scripture. After all, faithfulness is a noble attribute that the Bible promotes. Unlike rational assent, faithfulness strives to prove its own legitimacy through practical obedience; it seeks to ground belief by integrating faith with works. In fact, many highly devoted believers, pastors, and missionaries have believed, and do believe that striving for a more radical devotion ‘proves’ trust in God. In fact, some 17th century Puritans used a practical syllogism to show the faithfulness/faith connection: Valid faith in God must involve prove itself with religious good works, I am doing religious good works from a ‘right’ motive, therefore my faith must be is valid!
However, as noble as this approach might seem, faith as faithfulness has the proclivity to become nothing more than a trust in human effort—effectively a good work. In the process of proving one’s rightness in God’s eyes through faithfulness, the focus of faith reflexively shifts from God to self. It doesn’t require too much imagination to see how such a version of a faith can be prove to be nothing more than a trust in ourselves! Yes, faithfulness is good but it can never be any more than the fruit of faith—not faith itself.
Finally, we come to a version of faith that, I believe, represents the kind of faith desired by God: faith as perpetual heart-felt trust.
Above and beyond an act of the intellect, genuine faith must involve absolute devotion of the self, a genuine recognition of my own inadequacy, necessarily resulting in an abandonment of my entire self to God. I cannot control the faith agenda by thinking or working, but must yield my whole ‘self’ to God. This kind of faith is not simply adding trust to reason or action, but represents an abandonment of any reliance on human capacity. As such, faith represents surrender of ‘all’ human control to Jesus Christ.
Since faith is total abandonment, it necessarily involves complete trust. It is so comprehensive, it even relies on God to every aspect of life. This kind of faith believes that every decision, action, and endeavour requires a resolute trust in God—even the smallest. It also believes that nothing done for God can be done without God. As it abandons itself to God’s moral will, it invariably leads to a loving care of others; in Paul’s words ‘faith expressing itself in love’!
Not only so, but this kind of faith is perpetual in nature. I don’t leave it behind at the evangelistic rally maintaining it as a memory, it accompanies every moment of my life. Far more than a punctiliar faith decision, faith ‘in Christ’ draws the believer into an atmosphere of faith, where Christ dependency becomes the perpetual modus operandi of all of life.
In this regard simple trust in God characterizes every: action, practice, and endeavor. Faith gets us right with God, faith keeps us right with him, and faith empowers all subsequent righteousness practicing—from ‘first to last’ (Rom 1:17). This is why Paul, consistent with his own stated practice (Gal 2:20), says in Romans 1:17 that the righteous will live by faith.
So as you can see, the subject of faith should not be taken for granted. In the end, errors in understanding faith come from creating a version of faith that appears to trust in God, while subtly maintaining human control. Until we come to terms with our desire to be in control, we will never come to terms with faith as God intends it. Perhaps the way ahead for those of us, like me, who are weak in faith, is to take small steps of abandoning ourselves to God. Once we experience God’s blessing, as we trust in small ways, it will invariably lead to a greater dependency and abandonment to his will. Why not start today, I am!